To say that horror films are routinely maligned and not taken seriously is to engender a yawn and a “Yeah, and what else?” response. It’s a given, right? A lot has been written and discussed about it. The trades will inevitably do a story every couple of years about how the studios hate to really admit making the films, yet they reap the benefits of an almost guaranteed income flow from those scary films on its roster. And you would really have to offer up an enthusiastic argument that any other specific genre inspires more of a fervent, loyal fan base, nor an almost guaranteed excitement and anticipation from its fans.
Yes, people get all riled up for specific films. James Cameron had everyone all hot-and-bothered to see what technological cinematic wonders ten years in his film laboratory had produced with AVATAR. And yes, the teen girls and their dateless older predecessors literally have their collective panties in a bunch over each installment of the spinster and spinster-in-training masturbation series known as the TWILIGHT films. And then there are the two words that inspired countless sidewalk sleepovers in front of theaters across the land: STAR WARS.
But we’re talking about a genre. And horror is king AND queen. You don’t see drama conventions popping up all over the country announcing signing appearances by Paul Giamatti, Lily Taylor and Arnaud Desplechin. And even if you tried, you’d have a ghost town of enthusiasm greet your start up Rom-Com Con event, regardless of that Lifetime Achievement Award for Katherine Heigl. But by this point, horror film conventions could probably match state and county fairs for reliability on bringing the faithful out in droves. So much so, that the events and their organizers that once housed all things horror and sci-fi and fantasy and thriller and even anime are now finding that each division (and here’s a respectful word they’d never expect) and discipline can split off and have their own fan parties – and still have great fan support.
I work at a lot of film festivals and I cover a few others as a journalist and I’ve become known as someone who is a great fan of genre films. In fact, I am looked upon as the “friend” of those films at those film festivals. I do my best to make sure the films and the filmmakers responsible for them are given an equal amount of attention and afforded the same respect as the other filmmakers because it’s very easy (even at this date) for them to be ghettoized. And as much as I can appreciate the artistry and entertainment value of an UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES or THE PRINCESS OF MONTPENSIER, there is an excitement and an adrenaline rush that a great horror film can deliver that can’t be equaled by those films.
Which brings me to my experience at the recent ZomBcon in Seattle (October 29-31) and the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s screening series “Scary Movies 4” (October 27-31).
Produced by upstart event impresario Ryan Reiter and inspired by his Guinness Book World Record breaking Red, White and Dead Zombie walk last year, ZomBcon – Seattle was my second genre convention for which I did some PR work this year (following this spring’s Texas Frightmare Weekend and Film Festival in Dallas). It was the first zombie-specific event I had attended and it was also the first out-of-town event that I had the pleasure of bringing my wife to.
And allow me to put my wife, Justina’s attendance at this event in context. She and I claim OLDBOY as our couple’s movie (a fact that reduced GRACE’s director Paul Solet to lament, “Why can’t I find that girl?”) and she also is the creator, co-writer and co-producer of STRIPPED, our feature film debut about some women that take the phrase “having a man over for dinner” literally. So – ZomBcon was an easy choice for the out-of-town film fest or event I could bring her to.
Now, I should say once again that not only had I done Texas Frightmare earlier in the year, but I have also been to several genre conventions and have experienced the good and the bad, the fun and the boring and sometimes the very sad at these things. The good being the excitement of crowds inspired to dress up and immerse themselves for a few days among other fans, meet icons, filmmakers and stars, see films and buy a lot of stuff having to do with horror movies. The bad demonstrating itself as a tendency for disorganization or un-inspired programming, vendor layouts and guests, the result of which being low attendance and the unfortunate sight of a horror-film actor or actress sitting at a signing table with no one around interested in having them sign a damn thing.
Reiter’s ZomBcon had some standard issue appeal that every genre convention utilizes as its bedrock: a program of films (classic and otherwise) dealing with and about zombies co-presented by the Seattle International Film Festival, and appearances by horror and film icons like George Romero, Malcolm McDowell and Bruce Campbell. The expected appearances by some of Romero’s old reliable “dead” cast members (John Amplas, Terry Alexander, Scott Reiniger) and Campbell’s THE EVIL DEAD co-horts (Ted Raimi, Danny Hicks, Timothy Patrick Quill, Betsy Baker, Ellen Sandweiss and Theresa Tilly) also were there in force. While, all of them are familiar to convention goers around the country, it was a solid group to have on hand.
The vendors had some predictable elements with horror themed (and specifically zombie themed) t-shirts, posters, books, films and toys, a makeup booth (to cosmetically get in with the gang), and a tattoo booth (to permanently mark the occasion).
But there were a couple elements that separated the event from others I had worked or been to as a fan, the first of which was unexpected – and that was the appearance of vendors that had a survivalist theme. The first literally was a booth promoting a legitimate survivalist camp. Because when the zombie apocalypse happens you better know how to take care of yourself without grocery stores, electricity and gas-heated water. Here’s a hint: the zombies aren’t going to be all that helpful, so you’re kind of on your own when it comes to wiping your a*s in the woods without causing a scene. The second were some guys selling actual swords, machetes, knives, and medieval-style daggers they create in their metal shop. They, naturally, “age” them so it doesn’t look like you’ve got some p***y-looking pristine shiny sword you pulled off a gift shop wall somewhere – because what could be more embarrassing when you’re with your fellow survivors sizing up each other’s zombie killin’ weaponry. But – real metal – real sharp – real s**t. Finally, there was a military accessories and BB-gun booth. And not just any BB-guns. Nope, BB-guns that were replicas of 44 Magnums, AK-47s and “the Navy Seals weapon of choice” the Swiss Arms SG552 Commando Rifle. By the way, my wife made the trip for the weekend bringing just the clothes she wore and planning to buy an outfit or two once she arrived in Seattle. So, when we met up at the conclusion of the first day, I asked her if she had made it to Macy’s or somewhere to get her clothes and she replied, “No, I spent all my clothes money on guns.”
Because that’s my girl.
Anyway, this trio of vendors spoke to what I saw (going in) as the coolest aspect of ZomBcon – and that was the attendance of authors like Max Brooks (World War Z, The Zombie Survival Guide), Roger Ma (The Zombie Combat Manual) and Don Roff (Zombies: A Record of the Year of Infection), members of the Zombie Research Society, etc. – all there to take part in panels that would discuss, dissect and deconstruct zombie physiology, infection rates, how world governments would likely react to a zombie plague and more. This went far beyond slow zombies versus fast zombies throw downs, these talks involved authors, doctors, political scientists and others to more than half-seriously talk about the realities of a zombie gauntlet being thrown down for reals. And while I was running around coordinating interviews and photo shoots and handling talent, I believe Justina attended almost every single one. Because if the zombie s**t does hit the fan, one of us needs a little more practical knowledge than how to organize a press line of the undead.
There were also two additional very key free agents thrown into the mix to make this ZomBcon something special. The first was the attendance of author Chuck Palahniuk (Fight Club, Choke, Pygmy). Palahniuk’s inclusion while maybe not a natural fit, was brilliant. Aside from his attendance at a special screening of FIGHT CLUB, Palahniuk also participated in some panels. At one of these, he offered up my favorite quote of the weekend referring to the effect Seattle’s rains had on the weekend’s event and its participating fans, “There’s nothing sadder than a zombie in the rain. It’s like a combination of Tammy Faye Baker and a Jackson Pollack.” The second was Bruce Campbell getting himself ordained as a minister so he could officiate a zombie wedding and renewal of vows at Seattle’s Experience Music Project. I think I can safely say I will never see the likes of that wedding (where almost everyone attending: wedding party, parents, grandparents, guests) dressed and behaved like zombies during the ceremony. In fact, as the zombie processional made their way to their final places with classic Romero zombie pacing, Campbell quipped, “This may be the longest wedding ever.”
My other personal highlights were; a panel discussion with theories breaking down the rise in popularity of horror icons (DRACULA and vampires were a reaction to Western Europe’s fears of being usurped by Eastern European Jews, FRANKENSTEIN was a coping mechanism for the introduction of disfigured World War I vets back into society, and zombie films rose and continue to rise out of times of war or large scale disasters); Malcolm McDowell giving a dramatic reading of Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back”, then asking, “Someone actually sat down and wrote this?”; and finally, Max Brooks eagerly anticipating the debut of AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” exclaiming, “Kirkman and Darabont – together they form Voltron.”
In fact, it was Brooks who exemplified the spirit that I see at these events and at my film festivals and that I frankly share: and that is taking the creativity, the ingenuity and the intellectual appeal of horror films seriously. Now, naturally there ARE horror films that are flat out silly. But, I am totally with Brooks when he takes AMC to task for trying to position “The Walking Dead” as a series that isn’t about zombies or (in my favorite rant of his) when they feel they have to run ads where they literally say “trust us”. Of course, after the debut broke all kinds of viewership records, it’s obvious that genre fans were the ones that AMC needed to listen to as we said, “No, trust us.”
Finally, as a capper to this column, I wanted to offer a shout out to the programming staff at the Film Society of Lincoln Center for their “Scary Movies 4” screening series (October 27-31). While I couldn’t attend, it was an impressive slate they put together including a film I’m really looking forward to (STAKE LAND), a film I’ve had at a couple of my film festivals and could not be more of a cheerleader for (Australia’s THE LOVED ONES), old school precursors (DEAD OF NIGHT), 70s classics (THE CREEPING FLESH, THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE, CARRIE), drive-in style craziness (THE MUTATIONS, MESSIAH OF EVIL), and a second Australian winner (THE CLINIC).
There were more and had I been there, I would have been planted in the theater for the duration needing an assistant to bring me food and drink – and to occasionally remind me (in my fevered state) that “it’s only a movie”. Seriously, the program the purveyors of all things “broccoli movie” (read my earlier column about that term) put together speaks to what I’m sure Brooks and I and film goers like us would agree on – there is a reason we LOVE horror films. There is a reason people were turned away at the door for a midnight screening of SPLICE at Sundance this year. And there is also a reason about two thirds into that film the entire audience I was with slumped down into their seats and collectively sighed as they realized this wasn’t going to be the “scare-the-crap-out-of-me” movie they were hoping for, rather it was just going to be a “bat s**t crazy” movie that was fun but not scary in the least.
Obviously, all of the undead faithful at ZomBcon gets that – and that is to be expected. The fact that the programmers at the vaunted Film Society of Lincoln Center not only get it, but get it to the extent that they can put together a weekend of films with historical and thematic context as well as flat out great entertaining thrills and chills – that says a lot. Because while I really enjoyed and appreciated the Palme d’or winner UNCLE BOONMEE, and I recently had a Criterion disc binge buying 8 ½, BLACK NARCISSUS, THE RED SHOES, MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW, VIRIDIANA and CRUMB, the only film I’ve seen twice in a theater this year: PIRANHA 3-D.
Because that movie was flat-out fun.